Headaches are to be expected, and some people are more prone to them than others. But sometimes, headaches are a sign of something more serious. Everyone experiences head pain, including infants and children. But when headaches become severe or chronic, you may need to see a Southern California ENT expert to rule out sinusitis and migraines.


So how do you know if your head pain is a sinus headache or migraine? There’s no need to wait until the pain and discomfort peak, and it’s not safe to assume they’ll never return. Read this to learn how to tell the difference between the two.

Sinus Headache or Migraine: How Are They Similar

Many people are unaware that migraines and certain types of head pain, such as sinus headaches, feel very similar. Many other types of headaches are commonly mistaken for sinus infections or migraine syndrome, respectively. Both conditions can cause mild to severe malaise and make it difficult to think clearly, perform tasks, or enjoy activities.

Sometimes, getting relief is as easy as avoiding stressful situations, increasing hydration, resting, and taking painkillers like NSAIDS or other medications. Other times, relief is elusive. The pain and distress associated with migraines and sinus headaches can be difficult to alleviate with conventional remedies and require medical care or advanced treatment.

Regardless of the type of head pain you experience, one thing is certain, the frequency and inconvenience of episodes can make living challenging and more stressful. Sinus headaches and migraines are known for striking without warning. The first step to making them less traumatic and debilitating is to learn the symptoms that differentiate sinus headaches from migraines.

Sinus Headache Symptoms

Head pain is a potentially serious sign of a sinus infection. The average person experiences one sinus infection every year. But it’s not uncommon for many individuals to experience them more frequently. Moreover, infections are more prevalent during the fall and spring, though they can occur at any time for various reasons.

It’s estimated that almost 35 million people are diagnosed with sinusitis every year, according to the CDC. The condition is so widespread that it accounts for more than 2.7 million medical visits annually. Many people with sinusitis experience severe and recurring headaches that are commonly confused or initially misdiagnosed as migraines or regular head pain.

The following symptoms are hallmark indicators of sinus infections.

  • Nasal discharge that is thick or discolored
  • Facial pain and tenderness
  • Dental pain near the cheeks or upper teeth
  • Pain in the nose
  • Sore or tender nostrils
  • Throbbing or pulsating head pain
  • Decreased ability to smell or taste
  • Head pain that intensifies with movement
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Snoring
  • Dizziness

Because there is some overlap between migraine and sinus infection symptoms, getting a formal diagnosis is important.

Migraine Headache Symptoms

To many, migraines are associated with headaches and are rarely attributed to sinus infections without other symptoms. Unlike sinus infections that normally appear after illness, migraines can occur at any time, and their exact cause is unknown. However, brain chemistry changes and damaged or pinched nerves or vessels in the head are reportedly factors. Moreover, the pain and distress caused by migraines often resolve within hours to a few days, unlike sinus infections that often linger indefinitely or come and go.

Both migraines and sinusitis cause pain in the head, in particular, around the forehead, eyes, and cheeks. They also contribute to nasal irritation and inflammation. But that’s where most of the similarities end. Migraine symptoms that help rule out sinusitis include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Aversion to lights or sounds
  • Smell sensitivities
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness

Migraines are often triggered by unpleasant stimuli, such as food, alcohol, noises, smells, or even fatigue. Symptoms can come and go and may not all show up at the same time or at all. Migraines can even be triggered by sinus infections, making it difficult for sufferers to differentiate between them. However, two symptoms that do not occur with migraines are fevers and coughs.

What to Do When Sinus Headaches or Sinus Headache or Migraine Migraines Strike

The pain and distress sinus headaches and migraines cause can make sleeping, eating, or even functioning difficult. Symptoms are not always present or may be so severe that routine self-care tactics are not very effective for immediate or long-term relief. Besides taking time to track any additional symptoms that may occur with sinus or migraine head pain, consider the following strategies for relief.

  • Drink more fluids. Dehydration causes the vessels in the body and head to constrict and increases the pressure inside. Dehydration also causes electrolyte imbalances. Low fluid intake also influences the severity of certain sinus symptoms, such as thick mucus discharge and nasal congestion. Drink more fluids to restore proper fluid homeostasis and prevent head pain.
  • Protect your health. Sinus headaches and symptoms are very common after an illness. Take measures to improve overall health and see an ENT specialist and primary doctor to ensure no underlying conditions or concerns predispose you to migraines or sinus headaches.
  • Use warm compresses, over-the-counter pain meds, decongestants, and antihistamines to help combat occasional migraines or sinus headaches. Avoid relying on these tactics for head pain that lasts longer than a few days or recurs every few weeks.

Migraines can be triggered by many things; the dominant cause is not yet known. However, sinus headaches and infections are normally triggered by inflammation of the sinuses from allergens, viruses, bacteria or irritants like smoke. Still, deformities in the nose, nostrils, or nasal cavities due to polyps, enlarged or hypertrophied turbinates, septum deviations, trauma from accidents, or even genetic irregularities play a role as well.

Headaches caused by sinus infections or issues with the nose are treatable with a variety of procedures, including balloon sinuplasty, septoplasty, turbinate reduction surgery, endoscopic sinus surgery, and other minimally invasive treatments.

Treatment is available for sinus headaches at the Southern California Sinus Institute by world-renowned nose and sinus specialist, Dr. Alen Cohen. Consultations and appointments are available! Contact us today to schedule your appointment!

To learn more about sinus headaches, check out this blog post: Frequent Sinus Headache Treatments. Visit our location at Southern California Sinus Institute in West Hills.